Going south

via Scam City

Tables don’t belong in the middle of grasslands. Is it an office if it’s missing two walls? He drove away, leaving me with my two friends and a stranger, to face the man seated behind the table. It was 2:30 p.m., and any of us would’ve been happy to approach him and knock the smile off his face.

Is it still a game if you didn’t know you were playing?

Everything starts somewhere.

To get to Ko Lanta from Bangkok, without involving an unnecessary short flight, you first have to make your way to Surat Thani. There’s a bus/ferry/bus combo-ticket that all travel agencies in Thailand sell and it’ll get you to Ko Lanta stress-free. Did we buy that? Of course not. Independent travelling in Thailand using public transport is easy and cheap. That’s what all the guidebooks say. So, that’s what we did. A DIY way to Ko Lanta from Bangkok goes like this: take the train to Surat Thani, then hop on a bus to Krabi. From there, catch a ferry to Ko Lanta.

See? Easy.

We took the 7:30 p.m. night-train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station for Surat Thani. The night-train helped us save on accommodation costs and it was preferable to spending similar hours in a cramped bus.

More leg room, too.

It’s spacious as long as you don’t pick the upper berth – the train’s curved roof leaves little room to move. For vertically challenged humans like me, it’s okay. The lower berth is a 100baht cheaper with more wiggle space.

An accident on the tracks delayed our departure by two hours. Delay notwithstanding, the first part of our journey had been easy. Fun, even. Everything that followed after, wasn’t.

We arrived at Surat Thani station around 7:30 a.m. the next morning. Rising above the din of the rushing passengers were the voices of a few locals who each stood with a placard bearing the name of a different popular island. They took turns yelling those names. Like an orchestrated hawker’s bazaar. Once satisfied with the crowd they’d collected, the touts marched the passengers towards the exit.

Since everyone’s headed that way, let’s follow?

Lesson 1: Don’t follow a clueless crowd

They led the groups of passengers towards a travel agency that was right across the station’s exit; conveniently situated next to the parked big buses for the combo-ticket holders. The four of us (my two friends and I, and a lady) were the only ones going to Krabi. We asked one of the touts about the bus to Krabi and she told us to wait for a few minutes, the bus was on its way. When it arrived, unlike the combo-ticket buses that had their destinations advertised along their length, ours had a small, white board on the front that simply read ‘Krabi’. One of my friends, who always has her wits about her, found the lady suspicious. Lazy and tired, I brushed her concerns aside. The other lady didn’t seem worried as she bought the ticket to Krabi and boarded the bus. Seeing no harm in it, I advised my friends to do the same.

Earlier, I’d told my friends that Thais were famous for their friendliness and were shy people. If a Thai rushes you along, chances are, it’s a scam. On a previous trip to Bangkok, the river-crossing ferry racketeers had almost duped me into a scam. They were talkative till I told them I wasn’t carrying enough cash to cover the fare for the trip across. When they started discounting the trip, we walked away. That was in the middle of the day and, though my friend and I were confused, we were clear-headed. This time, it was early in the morning, and I wasn’t ready to start thinking. So, I urged my friends to get on the bus.

I’ve tried to imagine the day play out differently: we could’ve walked farther and asked someone else, or we could’ve had breakfast at a cafe and used their Wi-Fi to research our way forward. Any other choice that would have led to a different outcome. But I hadn’t, and getting on that bus was like missing a step when walking down the stairs.

There’s no stopping it now.

We wanted reassurance that we’d picked the right bus. How long would it take to reach Krabi? Were there any stops on the way? With their limited grasp of English, the bus staff couldn’t answer our questions. We’d read the journey could take four hours so we chose the outward facing back seats on the top floor of our double-decker bus, and enjoyed the view.

Twenty minutes later, the driver got off the highway and onto a dirt road. Another five minutes, and he stopped in front of a shack. The tout told us to get off the bus. We collected our backpacks from the luggage compartment and stood facing a rundown office. Surrounded by trees, the only other unnatural thing in sight, apart from the office, was a dirty minibus that looked like it needed servicing. The staff in the office pointed at the minibus: that would be our ride to Krabi. Once our disbelief met the requisite nods, they rushed us to the minibus. We figured they didn’t want to waste a double-decker on just four passengers.

Our luggage tossed in the back, we took the middle rows and got comfortable on the sturdier seats. We shouldn’t have bothered. Twenty minutes later, our dirty minibus drove off the main road and onto a smaller lane where, finally, five minutes later, the driver stopped at the back of a building. He left us for a couple minutes and returned with a folded paper. We assumed it was a quick stop, and calmed our nerves. He opened the passenger door and pointed towards a parked bus on the other side of the lane. We were upgrading to a larger bus with a different driver.

After our questions received the token shirking of responsibilities, he urged us to the waiting bus. Our luggage beside us, we took the rows closer to the front and sat rigid on comfier seats. It took less than twenty minutes. He’d been driving on the city roads for a few turns (we were still in Surat Thani) when he slowed down at a junction and waited for the traffic light to turn green. Once it did, he turned the ignition off. We’d parked.

Is this how it ends? After ten minutes of wondering, we got off the bus to repeat the ritual of having our questions ignored. The driver even added a smile to his nods – one fit for toothpaste commercials. Our one-sided arguments lasted a few loud minutes before we gave up.

Help was just around the corner. Close to where the bus had stopped, there was the office of a travel agency: Phantip Travels. One of their female customer service agents agreed to translate our questions to the driver. By now wary of everyone, I did a quick search on Google for reviews on the travel agency. A few comments described them as the main organisers of intercity transit. Assured, we let the agency staff guide us.

Lesson 2: Don’t trust quick Google search results

With the help of our translator, the bus driver informed us that: he’d parked at the scheduled stop for buses heading to Krabi; he was waiting for more passengers; we’d resume travel at 10:30 a.m. (it was 9:10 a.m. then); and the ride to Krabi would take less than three hours. Our new confidant reassured us that the bus they’d shuffled us onto was part of a legitimate transportation service. And the driver wasn’t aware of what our day had been like so far.

Mollified, we rested our agitations in the cafe next door and, an hour later, boarded the bus, a second time, for Krabi. Four hours later, and plenty of kilometres before our intended destination, the bus detoured off the main road. It drove away from civilisation for a while and stopped in the middle of grasslands, next to an office created in an open shed.

Lesson 3: Don’t get off the bus

It was 2:30 p.m. We spent seven hours in lies, for this moment.

The man behind the desk beckoned us forward, smiling his welcome. Would you like something to drink? An ice-cream, perhaps? Such terrible weather, it’s been hotter than usual. Now, how can I help you?

He told us he didn’t know why anyone would put us through a circuitous route to Krabi. But now that you’re here, you can book your way forward with me. There weren’t any passenger-ferries from Krabi to Ko Lanta during low season but one of his buses would make the same trip later that day. If we booked with him, we would travel on his bus and use the vehicle-ferry to reach Ko Lanta. And if we didn’t? When the bus arrived, we could hitch a ride to the main road and then make our own way to the pier. He added that the last ferry for the day would leave at 3:30 p.m. We had half an hour.

Krabi was the last stop for the stranger we’d met at Surat Thani station and she accepted his hotel drop-off service. That left the three of us (my two friends and I) in the middle of grasslands and in an office that was missing two walls and one conscience. It was tempting to put an end to the cycle of deceit and find our own way forward. But one of my friends was ready for the day to end, preferably in comfort, which scavenging our own way forward could not guarantee.

We gave in. As we paid for the ferry and bus tickets, he assured us the booking included a hotel drop-off. No question about it! Thirty minutes later, our almost-full ride arrived. Stuffed in the back row of a minibus, for the fifth time we were on our way to Ko Lanta.

We crossed the pier into the main island of Ko Lanta nearly an hour later. A few seconds after exiting, the driver stopped beside a few parked tuk-tuks and exchanged some words with one of the drivers. The tuk-tuk driver then asked us to get off the minibus; we’d have to hire our own way to the hotel.

Lessons learnt, we refused.

Smiling, three minutes later, the driver dropped us to our hotel.

Thailand is an easy destination riddled with scams – we’re wiser for it.

Despite how annoying it was to reach Ko Lanta, the island is beautiful in its rugged simplicity. No bells and whistles to applaud your stay – it simply is. It’s the island experience I wanted in my memories.

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